Don’t let this 16-inch tall orange ceramics vase with black crazing (a form of glazing) fool you. It is not Asian. It is Hungarian.
This is the work of Geza Gorka, born in 1894 in Slovakia. He studied, after choosing ceramics as his life work, in Landkirchen, Germany, with masters Paul Mann and Mas Laeuger, who taught him the chemistry and physics of the potter’s art. And there was a lot to learn: the necessary heat ratio and high firing techniques of art pottery, and the art of cracked glazes, which goes back to the Asian styles developed through thousands of years.
There are at least two forms of crazing. One is to form a series of cracks inside of the pottery, called craquelure, and another forces the glaze itself to create the hairline cracks. Both techniques are difficult to learn and to accomplish because many a young potter’s pieces will end up shattered as she/he learns the art of imperfection perfected, the art of crazing!
We see, on this vase a series of craquelure that is in fact an applied glaze, and not the typical crazing which is in the ceramic itself. In fact, so beloved were the accidents of a glaze (which became the art of crazing) when it chemically does not bind to the ceramic, Asian potters deliberately tweaked the chemicals used in glazing and heat processes to “crack” a glaze, sometimes forming intricate and treasured spider-web designs that took years to learn.
There’s also a tradition in Japanese Wabi-sabi (an aesthetic of impermanence and imperfection) that calls for perfectly beautiful ceramic objects to be shattered and re- worked with a certain paste to reconstitute. The beauty of the pieces, called Kintsugi, is in the natural stress patterns of the break points emphasized by the paste used to glue the piece back together.
The aesthetic that a work of perfect art is not perfect is the basis for the theory of deliberate crazing on a ceramic vessel, which is usually accomplished at a very high heat upon porcelain.
But the applied glaze, as we see in this vase, can be made to appear to be deep cracks. It can also be applied with a second glaze, as Gorka has done here, on pottery.
Hungary in the early- to mid-20th century was a hotbed of ceramic talent, most notably the Zsolnay Manufactory, beloved by collectors of Art Nouveau pottery, but also a major manufacturer of tiles and decorative ceramics used in architecture.
If anyone has visited Budapest, you have seen these features. Zsolnay was the largest company in Austro-Hungary in 1914, and decorative tiles and mask-from grotesques of Zsolnay ceramics are all over the early 20th-century buildings of Budapest. The war stopped the production of high- market decorative art ceramics, and the factory was ordered to create insulators for the war.
Previous to that, two special glazes were developed that were kept secret.
Artists at the factory took these secrets and expanded upon the chemicals and heat needed to create further experimentation in glazing.
Geza Gorka was one of those talented artists who came out of the experimentation. In 1946-1948 he was head of experimentation for high fired vessels at Zsolnay workshop. Mid-century modern collectors call him one of the founders of modern Hungarian ceramic art, typified by simple lines, bold colors, influenced by German Expressionist paintings and woodcuts, folk styles of Hungary, and the geometric shapes of art deco.
For years, he was a seminal member of the Hungarian Design Community, serving since 1930 on the directorial board of the Association of Hungarian Designers.
He made hundreds of art pottery pieces, as well as functional ceramic objects for architecture. And he was a beloved teacher of at the Zebegeny Free School in 1970. When he died in 1971, his home became The Gorka Ceramics Museum.
I can remember thrift store shopping in the 1990s when I saw a lot of this Hungarian pottery, in the mid-century style, and I thought it was amateurish and too clunky to be anything worth purchasing for the $5 price tag on most of them. The colors were too strong, the forms too simple, and the designs too geometric. How things change, especially in the history of design.
For the reasons I did not like the Hungarian “look,” mid-century modern collectors today love those very same design features.
What I could have picked up for $5 is now worth $500 or more today, as is G.H.’s vase.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.